Kong Nay is known internationally as the master of the chapei dang veng, a traditional Cambodian instrument resembling a long-necked lute or guitar with two nylon strings that he was already playing professionally by the age of 15.
Nay is sometimes referred to as the Cambodian Ray Charles given that he is a blind man who possesses rare musical talents and has an expressive and timeless quality to his voice.
The subject of documentary films and the winner of international awards in his later years, by some miracle Nay, 75, survived all of the turmoil of Cambodia in the 1970s – despite his blindness or perhaps because of it – and has been performing for audiences through the years and decades ever since.
Nay is now helping to introduce a new generation of young Cambodian artists and audiences to traditional Cambodian music by teaming with a young artist, VannDa, a rising star in Khmer-language rap.
Their song together, Time to Rise – and its video shot at the National Museum amongst the treasures and antiquities of the Angkor Empire – have gone viral, in the best possible sense of that term.
The song starts with Nay singing the refrain “Errr, Ery . . . Time to Rise.” As he plays his chapei the airy sounds of a Khmer flute join him followed by the heavy thump of a modern rap beat.
VannDa wears traditional dress in the video, appearing alongside Nay at the museum and rapping in Khmer and calling for a renewed pride in Cambodian cultural heritage.
Combining traditional Cambodian music with modern Cambodian rap was done with the conscious goal of increasing awareness and appreciation for traditional instruments like the chapei with the younger generation of Cambodian music fans – which is almost all of them, considering that 70 per cent of Cambodia’s population today is under the age of 30.
“We wanted to preserve our heritage while also making a contemporary music video. We also wanted to spread more understanding and awareness about [Cambodian] culture, particularly with young Cambodians who don’t seem to care much about traditional art,” says VannDa’s manager, Long Peter.
Time to Rise is a lyrical celebration of Khmer heritage – including ancient temples but also venerating the knowledge and wisdom of the elders like Master Kong Nay.
The official video was streamed over one million times on YouTube in the first 24 hours after it was posted on March 28, and one week later it is now approaching six million views. That’s quite a lot for a song rapped in a language that only has about 16 million native speakers total in the entire world.
VannDa spent several months working under the guidance of Baramey Productions – with corporate sponsorship support provided by Cellcard – writing and producing Time to Rise, a song that he says “came straight from his heart.”
“I am so excited that Master Kong Nay is in my music. He is an iconic singer and a living legend,” VannDa wrote on Facebook.
Peter told The Post that “we didn’t realise at first that the song was going to blow up like this. Obviously, VannDa already had a lot of fans, but we couldn’t believe it when we saw how popular this song in particular was, almost instantly.”
“[VannDa] is very excited, stunned almost. Ironically enough for a rapper, it’s like he’s at a loss for words. He was not expecting to hit the jackpot with this song,” Peter says.
It took five months to write and produce Time to Rise, beginning in November 2020 around the time that VannDa became a Cellcard brand ambassador.
Since the song involved a traditional form of music and they wanted to shoot the video at the National Museum, approval for the lyrical content from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts was sought early on.
Instead of the usual overly-critical comments left by most people on YouTube videos or on social media in general, the response so far – even the anonymous and online portion – has been overwhelmingly positive.
Musicians and fans from a number of countries across the region – such as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar – have left comments appreciative of the song’s artful blending of traditional and modern musical forms.
“When I heard the chapei and the flute together I got goosebumps. This is proof that [Cambodian] music is really developing now,” one Facebook user commented.
Another wrote “thank you to VannDa and Master Kong Nay for this musical evolution that shows [Cambodia’s] rich cultural heritage and civilisation.”
VannDa – whose real name is actually Vannda Mann – left his hometown of Sihanoukville for Phnom Penh to pursue his dreams of becoming a rapper.
Growing up poor, for a time VannDa lived at a pagoda. His family couldn’t afford a motorcycle and he would have to walk or hitchhike everywhere when he couldn’t catch a ride with friends.
VannDa started writing songs in 2009, but his music career didn’t really get going until 2016.
The first hip-hop track that he debuted was J+O in 2019, which now has 15 million views on YouTube after three years – a number that Time to Rise could potentially reach in just three weeks at its current pace.
“It is a historic music video as the first by a [Cambodian artist] to have hit one million views in less than 24 hours,” said Peter.
Writing on Facebook, VannDa explained that a number of factors went into the decision to write a song blending modern and traditional music and that it required a lot of discussion and attention to detail to get it right.
“We decided we really wanted to force younger audiences to pay more attention to traditional culture and arts and that the best way to do that was creatively – by mixing it with modern sounds and easing the transition from one to the other for the listeners,” VannDa says.
Asked if the blending of styles was difficult to produce, Peter said with a laugh that “we rely on producers who are audio experts, but honestly we have no idea whether it was hard or not because the credit there should really go to Master Kong Nay, who was very flexible for us, so it might be better to ask him.”
VannDa’s music career ambitions aren’t limited to just Cambodia or the Khmer-language music audience, however.
“We want to pave the way for [Cambodia’s] younger generations to enter the international market and to show that there are talented artists all over the world who come from different backgrounds.
“We want [people from other] countries to learn the Khmer language and to know about Cambodia’s long and rich history before the tragic times.
“And we want to do all that through the spirit of music,” VannDa says.
For more details visit VannDa’s Facebook page: @vanndaofficialpage